Many Yankees have suffered through the dreaded “slow start” this season. However, DJ LeMahieu was always the one that Yankees fans had the most confidence in snapping out of it. The last few games, LeMahieu looked to be on the right path, that is before Thursday’s loss to Houston which saw him go 0-4.
Despite hitting .355 over that eight-game span, something was still off with LeMahieu – he had just one extra-base hit and a single RBI in those eight games. For the season, LeMahieu’s triple slash sits at a disappointing .267/.361/.336, and the most alarming figure there is his slugging percentage. We’ve seen LeMahieu’s average run higher than .336 before, but this season, he can’t even get his slugging out over his OBP.
For LeMahieu, an excess of groundballs has sparked this power outage. There were signs of this in the abbreviated 2020 season – LeMahieu’s launch angle and groundball rate were slightly worse than in his 2019 campaign, but he still hit the ball hard most of the time and in the right places, rewarding him with a sparkling .364 batting average. This year, LeMahieu isn’t hitting the ball as hard, and he’s hitting it on the ground more than 58% of the time. Additionally, his hard-hit rate has fallen eight percent from where it was in 2019, though that mark still sits above the league average.
So, why is LeMahieu drilling so many pitches into the dirt? Opposing pitchers have changed the way they’re attacking him, making it more difficult for LeMahieu to do damage. For one, they’re throwing him fewer strikes. While LeMahieu still isn’t chasing the increased pitches out of the zone, he’s not capitalizing on the strikes he does get quite as often. In fact, he’s only swinging 37.9% of the time, nine-percent lower than MLB average and five-percent less often than his own career average.
Specifically, opposing pitchers are pounding LeMahieu down in the zone. Compare LeMahieu’s 2020 location map (first) to his 2021 chart (second):
LeMahieu has seen 54% of his pitches in the bottom half of the strike zone this year. That figure was just 46% last year, and 47% the year before. As a result, LeMahieu is also seeing significantly fewer pitches elevated in the zone. Just 25% of his pitches this year have been in the high part of the zone; that total was 33% last year and 31% the year prior. And, on the rare occasion LeMahieu has gotten a pitch high in the zone to drive, he hasn’t been connecting – he has just two hits on high strikes this year. High pitches are obviously the easiest ones to elevate, and pitchers have strategically avoided giving LeMahieu too many of those.
There’s still hope for LeMahieu. He’s been a good low-ball hitter over the course of his career (albeit not so far in 2021), and while he’s striking out a little more this season, he’s still better than MLB average in that regard. So, it’s not like LeMahieu has completely lost his trademark ability to make contact, or eschewed his plate discipline and started chasing. But, for a 32-year-old player the Yankees just gave a six-year contract, it is concerning that he isn’t hitting the ball as hard as usual. The Yankees need LeMahieu to elevate his game, in more ways than one.